Cult heroes: Tommy Vance was British radio's unsung heavy metal guru

The rarely feted Radio 1 DJ took metal out of its ghetto and played it to the whole country, spawning furious, flourishing scenes in its wake

Those who are regular viewers of BBC4’s reruns of Top of the Pops might have cringed a little the other week. The show, from 16 October 1980, was presenting the first appearance by a group called Adam and the Ants, performing their single Dog Eat Dog. For a whole lot of people, this was their Bowie-does-Starman moment, in which someone not of this world descended and changed the way pop was perceived.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, the more startling performance came from the show’s host, Tommy Vance. This was a period in which special guests would pop up briefly to be interviewed, and that week Vance was joined by Suzi Quatro and Dollar. “I love you wearing that gear,” he tells the red-leather-clad Quatro (“Weird guy,” she mutters); the latter interview saw Vance offering to take Thereza Bazar off David Van Day’s hands, wrapping his arm around her shoulders, as if she were a piece of property (“How much?” asks Van Day). Yes, they were different times, but at 35 years’ distance, it was pretty awful stuff.

But it would be a shame if Vance, who died in 2005, was remembered for being a caricature of the sleazy DJ, because he was actually one of British radio’s great supporters of new music.

It’s received wisdom now that Radio 1 had one DJ who supported genres no one else would play, who gave exposure to new groups and helped scenes coalesce as a result, who got bands in for sessions, as well as playing old music his young listeners might not have known. That description fits not just John Peel, though, but also Tommy Vance.

On 24 November 1978, Vance launched a new programme on Radio 1, on Friday nights from 10pm to midnight. The slot was taken from Peel, much to his disgruntlement, according to David Cavanagh’s fascinating history of the Peel show, Good Night and Good Riddance. Vance, Peel’s former co-presenter on Top Gear, responded with a mixture of grace and spikiness: “No matter what John Peel has to say on the air in terms of disparaging remarks with regard to the people who listen to the Friday Rock Show (as far as he thinks, you’re all balding and got false teeth), I think it’s safe to remember that Peely really was at the forefront of a lot of great music, and probably still is. Probably.”

But with the Friday Rock Show, Vance created his own world – one every bit as baffling to outsiders as Peel’s was – lending his support to a swath of young bands, some of who would go on to become stadium-huge, others who would inspire bands that changed heavy music for ever, when their music was seized upon by bands such as Metallica, spawning thrash. If you wanted old stuff you’d never heard, you would get it from Vance, too – I can’t have been the only person to have taped AC/DC’s Live from the Atlantic Studios off the radio when Vance played it in its entirety one night.

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal would find its home on Radio 1 under Vance’s purview. All the major bands came in to record sessions – Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Diamond Head, Samson, Girlschool, Angel Witch, Saxon, Tygers of Pan Tang and more – and records put out, like those Peel was playing, on small independent labels from the regions would find their way to the airwaves. And so bands such as Demon, Venom, Sledgehammer, Witchfynde, Spider and Mama’s Boys would hear themselves on national radio.

The narrative one hears now about NWOBHM talks about Neal Kay’s exploits as the DJ at the Soundhouse night at a pub in north London, and how that brought metal out of the shadows. There’s some truth in that, but that affected only the small number of people who could actually get there and get in – it was to metal as Blitz was to the new romantics. What took metal out of its ghetto was Vance playing it to the whole country.

As Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott put it earlier this year: “At the time, there were local radio stations which had their own rock show. But this was the only one on national radio. You might hear the occasional track like Radar Love on daytime radio. But it was rare. So, when you tuned in to Tommy, you knew you were in for an education … You listened to the show and he mixed in unknown, unsigned bands with the more established artists. When NWOBHM happened, he would play us, Maiden and so many others. It was the only place you could hear young rock and metal bands on air. I remember Tommy made the cover of Sounds in 1981. They had the headline ‘Metal Guru’ on it! And that summed him up. That was the way we all felt about him.”

Even after NWOBHM faded, Vance kept up his commitment to new bands, playing them until he left Radio 1 in 1993. People talk about Peel championing extreme music, but Vance – unsurprisingly – played thrash and stuck up for it, explaining to Radio 1 listeners after Slayer’s set from Castle Donington had been broadcast live that they had not been listening to mindless noise but carefully controlled force. But when he thought something had been a let-down, he said so – he told his listeners he had never been more disappointed by a major band than Van Halen, after he felt they phoned in their performance at the 1984 Monsters of Rock festival.

But he’s rarely feted. Partly, that might be down to the music he played not being the kind that gets the “tastemakers” in a lather of excitement. Partly it might be down to him having the kind of radio persona that Peel very consciously eschewed. Vance would introduce himself as “TV on the Radio, Thomas Vance, the music vendor”, and he had bands record jingles for him: “On Friday / Hear Tommy / In living stereo / On Friday / Hear Tommy / The Friday Rock Show.”

But the success of a specialist DJ doesn’t rest on their jingles, or their catchphrases. It rests on their commitment to the music they’re playing, and their audience’s response to it. And Tommy Vance, for a decade, was Britain’s Mr Metal.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The new wave of British heavy metal – 10 of the best
The music that became known as NWOBHM was short lived, but it bequeathed rock an enduring legacy of hugely influential bands

Tim Hall

07, Sep, 2016 @2:00 PM

Article image
Cult heroes: Saxon – Barnsley boys who forged the 80s metal boom
In their heyday, these DIY heroes were as big as Iron Maiden, blasting out songs about motorbikes and metal subculture that delighted their fans

Michael Hann

14, Jun, 2016 @3:28 PM

Article image
For those about to rock ... heavy metal set to be the soundtrack of summer

Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Kiss among 1980s acts leading genre's resurgence

Owen Gibson, media correspondent

24, May, 2008 @1:09 AM

Article image
'It had to be raw and dangerous' – Def Leppard, Saxon and Venom on 80s British metal
Inspired by punk’s energy, the new wave of British heavy metal helped put the ‘snot and piss’ back into rock music. Forty years on, its leading players tell the story

Michael Hann

16, May, 2019 @1:35 PM

Article image
British Steel | radio review

Justin Lee Collins was the perfect presenter for this history of heavy metal, says Elisabeth Mahoney

Elisabeth Mahoney

27, Sep, 2009 @11:05 PM

Article image
Jim fixed it for Iron Maiden and me
Dom Lawson was a shy 14-year-old when he wrote to the late Jimmy Savile asking to meet his heavy-metal heroes. What happened next changed his life for ever …

Dom Lawson

02, Nov, 2011 @2:12 PM

Article image
The 100 greatest BBC music performances – ranked!
As the Beeb celebrates its centenary, we take a look at its most memorable pop moments, from the birth of grime to the first sightings of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, plus TOTP goes Madchester and countless classic Peel sessions

Guardian music

06, Oct, 2022 @12:12 PM

Article image
Metal in 2014: can Shrapnel pierce through?

Norwich thrash outfit Shrapnel are set to join Polish veterans Behemoth, Bay Area bruisers Machine Head, Mastodon and Metallica in what promises to be a heavy year for the UK

Dom Lawson

31, Dec, 2013 @9:00 AM

Article image
Why not sack every DJ on Radio 1?

Caroline Sullivan: This week Jo Whiley announced she would be moving to Radio 2. Should her fellow Radio 1 DJs follow suit?

Caroline Sullivan

04, Feb, 2011 @9:02 AM

Article image
Heavy by Dan Franklin review – metal gets serious
More than just guitar power chords ... a weighty discussion of metal, for both passionate fans and neophytes

Keith Kahn-Harris

11, Mar, 2020 @11:58 AM